What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Government 3; Citizens’ Panels

In my last post, on proportional representation, I suggested that instead of candidates being preselected by political parties as currently happens, a more democratic way would be to have randomly chosen citizens’ panels determine these by rating candidates’ applications.

(An advantage of PR that I forgot to add would be that in place of the current bipolar two-party system we have in Australia and elsewhere, this political setup would allow people to consider more rationally the future they wish to see. For example, at present (May 2011) we have a poorly-performing government in Australia and consequently the Opposition’s stocks are high, quite undeservedly. Under the four-colour system I discussed last week, this would not happen (partly because there wouldn’t be an official Opposition)).

I believe that the principle of randomly chosen citizens serving on panels could be extended widely across society, and would have the function of democratising the institutions of society.

The precedent for this is the institution of the jury in trials. The use of juries goes back a long way in history and the institution has wide popular support. Although it has been attacked, mainly by lawyers’ groups, as complicating the judicial process and sometimes letting guilty parties go free, nevertheless there have been no serious attempts to abolish the institution in any of the countries in the English common law tradition, and some cases where the institution has extended into countries with different legal traditions, for example Italy and Norway.

The idea for the involvement in juries in judicial system is that a trial, although it is mainly conducted by legal professionals, is also an event in society where a breach of peace of some sort is investigated and someone may be punished for this. The jury is required to deliberate on the charges facing the defendant and it is the jury which decides on the question of guilt or innocence. Thus representatives of a wider society are allowed into the process and are formally part of the proceedings by making the most important decision.

This idea could be extended to any organisations and institutions that operate in the public sphere. This would mean that wherever a committee, tribunal or board currently operates, under this scheme such bodies would have citizen representatives chosen at random sitting on them. Nor would the private sector be exempt, after all, the private sector operates in the public sphere. There is no reason why company boards, for example, should not have citizen representatives sitting on them too.

Of course this would be a fundamental change in society and one that would have to introduced carefully at first. But in time I would like to see citizens representatives making up the majority on committees, boards &c, and then most of society would be under the direction of representatives of the citizenry instead of, as at present, under the control of businesspeople, professionals and experts, who usually have their own interests at heart, instead of the wider good.

The advantage of this idea is that it puts people back into the centre of society from which they have been excluded. Over time people’s knowledge of how institutions operates increases, and they are increasingly able to make changes to those institutions with wisdom. Over the generations we get a citizenry that feels it has a stake in society, instead of merely feeling angry and excluded (as per the US Tea Party). In time reforms to social institutions are developed and pushed from the inside, as it were.

In time people would, instead of defining themselves by their work as at present, define themselves as citizens first, and this identification would help them find a meaning to their lives beyond those currently put forward by the makers of consumerist dreams—in next week’s piece I will be arguing that our obsession with work is one of the main reasons we can’t see past our immediate concerns to the wider ecological crisis. This crisis is one of the most important issues that citizens beginning to operate on committees and boards could begin to tackle.

Another advantage of this idea is that it involves people serving the community in a way they have not selected beforehand, not putting themselves forward into a particular role. This is in contrast to other means by which it has been suggested that people might become more involved in society, these often involve pushy, loud-mouthed people, control-freaks and other types that it would be better not to have involved. (There is, sadly, a tendency amongst people to assess people’s intelligence and worth on the basis of their self-promotion and their aggressive sociability, the truth is that real intelligence is often in inverse relation to these traits). This proposal involves everyone, of all personality types and social and educational levels. Thus is brings ‘real’ people into the public sphere from which they have largely been excluded by politicians and would-be politicians.

This proposal is open to objection that people generally can’t deal with complex information and complex decision-making. This argument, of course, won’t hold much water with anyone who has sat on a committee, or observed one in operation, and seen the level at which they actually operate. Moreover, juries are allowed to be selected and to operate without people’s perceived abilities being allowed to affect this.

However, the obvious answer to that objection is that here is process which will effect an ongoing education in people, so that, as I noted before, over the years and over the generations, people do gain more knowledge and more expertise, and information about institutions and society’s operations becomes common knowledge and of common interest. This then leads to higher levels of savoir faire generally. It would also, you would hope, be part of a move to a ‘flatter’ society, with lower disparities of wealth and status than at present.

A final, and perhaps unexpected advantage, would be that people’s health would improve. The work of Michael Marmot, summarised in his book The Status Syndrome, has demonstrated that the more control that people feel they have over their lives, and more they feel they are part of, and contribute to, social process, the better their health and the longer they live.

Next week: Work

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